The delights of a flowery bark cheese begin before you slice it – the gently wrinkled wheel, speckled and dimpled like the face of the moon. The promising stench that is getting stronger by the minute.
But I looked at the velvety shell of a two-pound barn cat with more than a hint of skepticism. This cheese was made from cashew nuts and coconut and had a dark line of vegetable ash streaked with it, and I doubted these ingredients could go through any meaningful transformation.
I was wrong. I was not prepared for the mild, pleasantly moist aromas of a softly ripened goat cheese, for the slightly peppery taste, for the dense, luxurious creaminess.
When I was a vegetarian, cheese was the last chef in college for anyone I knew considering veganism is the last and most difficult food to go without. And it seemed like nobody could win – cheese made from milk was too tasty, and the vegan cheese that was available in specialty stores was bland, pale simulacra.
In recent years, as the national demand for vegan foods has increased, the vegan cheese industry has been booming. The competition is fierce, and the best slices, scraps, and other mass-produced vegan cheeses are none other than the disappointing, often disgusting, starchy goosebumps I remember from the early 2000s.
This newer generation of packaged cheese is more compelling in part because it’s made in much the same way as milk cheese, which is made from cultured plant-based milk, which develops texture and taste through fermentation, not just additives.
On a much smaller scale, specialty cheeses like Blue Heron Creamery in Vancouver, British Columbia; the herbivorous butcher in Minneapolis; and Vtopian Artisan Cheeses in Portland, Oregon, are pushing the boundaries of these fermentations to create vegan cheeses with flavors and textures that I previously thought were impossible.
Stephen Babaki of Conscious Cultures Creamery in Philadelphia inoculates the surface with various strains of Penicillium candidum, usually used to ripen Camembert and Brie, and then ripens them for two to three weeks to create this ash-centered barn cat.
“You can’t fake time,” said Babaki-san. “And if you don’t give the cheese time, it can’t develop a taste.”
Mr. Babaki made a vegan blue cheese from cashew nuts and matured for three months. He soaked whole wheels in kimchi brine and washed other cheeses with wine. Its most popular vegan cheese, the maverick, is a fluffy, cream-colored puck with a sharp taste and a convincingly buttery texture.
The cheese is likely to be at its peak by around six weeks. But Mr Babaki knows some customers who like to age it at home for three months and sometimes even longer. “It’s gonna …” he said, pausing, “really funky.”
Babaki-san once matured a cheese for 15 months and found its skin to turn pink and release a mild tinge of ammonia, much like a sweaty milk cheese just after its prime.
Inside, it had the nutty taste of aged Gouda cheese along with a matrix of tiny crystals that are typically found in long-aged hard milk cheese. The cheese needed work, but Mr Babaki took it as an encouraging sign of the possibilities that lie ahead.
Trial and error seem to be the unofficial creed of most vegan cheese makers, and to some extent it has to be.
The preservation of dairy products is ancient and well-documented, with techniques established for curdling the milk and for shaping and ripening the curd – early versions of brine-hardened feta date back approximately 5,000 years to Central Asia and the Middle East. Vegan cheese, however, is comparatively young and very experimental and is developing rapidly every year.
“The cheeses from the early 2000s and today’s cheeses are hard to compare,” said Michaela Grob, owner of the vegan cheese shop Riverdel in Manhattan, at Essex Market.
Her business has been open for five years, and even in that short time, says Ms. Grob, she has seen the supply and quality of vegan cheeses grow exponentially, with a recent surge in blue-veined cheeses and Brie-like cheeses .
Ms. Grob, who also makes her own cheese for the store, attributes this creativity to the availability of more and more vegan cultures – the same microbes that are used to make milk cheese and alter the flavors of milk grown in a vegan setting.
“Think of it this way,” she said. “Cow’s milk doesn’t taste like Gouda – you use a certain culture that gives you that Gouda taste.” These cultures may work completely differently with plant-based milk, but until recently it was impossible for most vegan cheese makers to even try. The culture houses that sell varieties to cheese makers couldn’t bother growing vegan versions.
In 2014, when Miyoko Schinner published Artisan Vegan Cheese, her latest recipes relied heavily on homemade Rejuvelac – sprouted, fermented grains filled with probiotics and lactic acid.
Ms. Schinner, who researched her book by taking cheese-making classes and studying the ways traditional cheese was made, then experimented at home in San Anselmo, California, and gave her kids a taste of her vegan concoctions when they of came home from school.
Early tests included the coagulation of macadamia, cashew, oat, and almond milk. She worked with commercial vegan yogurts to experiment with her vegan cultures.
The book was a hit, although Ms. Schinner quickly learned that most readers wanted to buy their non-dairy products that were already prepared and not want to make them from scratch. The same year she published the book, she opened an alternative dairy store called Miyoko’s Creamery.
Although Ms. Schinner is not without a lot of competition, she was a pioneer in growing plant-based milk, and her cheeses still carry a certain stamp of approval among chefs.
“Their products are pretty sacrosanct,” said Brooks Headley, the chef and owner of Superiority Burger in New York City. “When we play around with new recipes for non-dairy creams, yogurt and ricotta, we often achieve consensus among staff: ‘Well, it’s pretty good, but it’s not Miyoko.'”
Ms. Schinner influenced a generation of cheese makers, but less than a decade ago when she called culture houses to source vegan cheese cultures, she couldn’t get anyone to take her seriously.
“Because who was I? Just a crazy vegan cheese maker, ”she said. That changed when it became clear that vegan cheese was a growing market. “Culture houses want to work with you when you are big enough to smell business,” she said.
Today there are culture houses all over the world selling vegan cultures. Some can produce buttery notes, peppery properties, extensibility, and more. Ms. Schinner estimates that there are around 30 cultures in her library that are pelleted or freeze-dried and stored in the freezer.
Like Ms. Schinner, Aaron Bullock and Ian Martin from Mischas Kind Foods experiment with vegan cultures and work with their own proprietary cultures that they strictly protect.
Misha’s sells flavored cream cheese made from cultivated cashew milk – soft and thick, satisfying and slightly spicy – as well as vegan, ricotta-like quark.
“As black men, we are one of the groups most affected by poor diets,” Bullock said when I asked why they started a new vegan company in southern Los Angeles.
The company, which initially sold an alternative cream cheese made from cultured cashew milk at farmers markets in Los Angeles, now employs a team of 20 and plans to switch more omnivores to vegan cheese.
“I’m a carnivorous, milk-eating, carnivorous Texan,” said Bullock, explaining that as a serial entrepreneur, he saw the opportunity for high-quality vegan cheese as well.
Denise Vallejo runs Alchemy Organica in Los Angeles and makes vegan Mexican cheeses for the restaurant’s pantry, including quesillo, the stretchy Oaxacan cheese, a cultured nacho cheese, and a crumbly, smelly cotija made from fermented, grated coconut.
In her first attempts a few years ago, Ms. Vallejo examined Miyoko’s Creamery labels for ideas on what ingredients to reach for, made substitutions when she had to, and learned along the way.
“I started with soy milk but moved on to cashews,” she said. “I looked at some independent companies that sell various enzymes for growing camembert or brie, and I also vaccinated with store-bought yogurt.”
Ms. Vallejo found that tapioca starch added some elasticity and stickiness to her quesillo, and that agar added body when it gelled. Once she perfected it, cheese became a coveted standard item on her menu and her “money maker”.
“Making local dishes with these cheeses, having a tortilla harina with quesillo is a really big deal,” she said.
Kirsten Maitland and Fred Zwar opened their vegan delicatessen and wine store Rebel Cheese in Austin, Texas a few months before the pandemic. And like Ms. Vallejo, they work to create specific cultural touchstones for their customers – vegan versions of Parmesan, Brie, Mozzarella, Gruyère and Pepper Jack.
Your chebrie is harder to categorize. It’s marketed as a cheddar-brie hybrid, which I think would be a little monstrous if made from milk. Slice into the healthy, flaky white peel and spot an orange baby food interior that’s sharp and creamy, holds its shape, but is just soft enough to spread out. It is delicious.
When I sliced the Chebrie with a couple of crackers and a glass of cold, sparkling wine, I found that the language of dairy products, the universe of cheeses I knew, was not enough. I needed new words, new categories, new points of reference.
Was it really helpful to think of that delicious little cheese as a cheddar and brie hybrid, or did that limit my appreciation for it? It wasn’t actually one of those cheeses, but the original product of Ms. Maitland’s tireless experimentation with growing plant-based milk – in this case cashew, soy, and coconut.
Like some of the most exciting cheeses in this new, experimental wave, it wasn’t a flawless replica of something familiar. It was his own curious, delightful new thing.